Book Review: “Dark Fire” by C.J. Sansom

28280675._SY475_The year 1540 during the reign of Henry VIII was a turbulent time. Henry’s new wife, Anne of Cleves, is not exactly the person who he imagined and his eye is starting to wander to a new woman, Katherine Howard. The reformers are starting to lose favor with the king as they and Catholics alike are being executed for treason. This is the London that Matthew Shardlake, our favorite hunchback lawyer turned detective, calls home. He thinks that he has retired from his detective work and serving Thomas Cromwell, but he is sadly mistaken. His next adventure has twice the number of cases and just as much danger that makes his trip to the monastery in “Dissolution” look easy. In the second book of the Shardlake series, “Dark Fire”, C.J. Sansom turns up the heat, the action, and the danger.

We join Matthew Shardlake during a busy season in his life as a lawyer. He is working on maintaining his legal practice, and his next case is a doozy. A young girl named Elizabeth is accused of murdering her cousin and it is up to Shardlake to defend her, even when everyone believes she is guilty of the crime. Just as he is adjusting to this new case, he gets a call from his favorite person who he thought he was done dealing with for a while, Henry’s chief minister, Thomas Cromwell. Cromwell has a new case for Shardlake, to recover the lost formula for the mysterious Greek Fire, also known as Dark Fire. Cromwell knew that Shardlake would need some help with this new case, so he sends a new partner, the daring and resourceful Jack Barak. The only clue they have is someone from the Court of Augmentations found the formula in a dissolved monastery’s library, but when the person who had it and his alchemist brother are found brutally murdered, things get extremely complicated. Two separate cases that share the same deadline and the same amount of danger if Shardlake and Barak should fail to solve them. Can they solve both cases in time?

When I read the description of this book, my first impression was that C.J. Sansom was trying to cover too much in a book. I thought that there was no way that Shardlake could solve both cases in the time frame that he was given and that Sansom would focus on one case over the other. I was proven wrong as this book was beautifully balanced between the two cases while keeping the reader’s attention throughout the entire book.

Sansom made the Tudor London world come to life in this brilliant sequel. I thought the way he showed the struggle for power between those who had it and those who wanted it was masterfully done. He included some of my favorite characters from “Dissolution” in this book, which made me extremely excited and I believe that Shardlake’s new partner Barak was a stroke of genius. Their interactions were some of my favorites in this entire book and I cannot wait to see how he develops Shardlake and Barak’s partnership throughout the rest of the series.

I enjoyed this book immensely. It kept me guessing with both cases until the bitter end. There were so many twists and turns, revelations, and intrigue. There were some places where I think the pacing was a bit slower than the first book, but it did not detract from my enjoyment of this remarkable sequel. I did not want it to end because it would mean that I would have to leave this dynamic world with intriguing characters, until the next book. It was a sheer joy to dive back into Shardlake’s Tudor world and I honestly cannot wait to jump back into another Shardlake mystery. The first book made me fall in love with Shardlake, but this one made me fall in love with his Tudor world and the people around him. If you have read “Dissolution”, “Dark Fire” by C.J. Sansom is a must-read.

Book Review: “Dissolution” by C.J. Sansom

28093757._SY475_The Tudor dynasty marked tons of changes in society and religious norms. In 1537, the changes are in full force. Anne Boleyn was executed a year earlier and Henry’s third wife, Jane Seymour recently passed away after giving birth to Edward VI. Religious reformers are clashing with the Catholic Church after Henry VIII has declared himself the Supreme Head of the Church of England. Henry VIII’s reign marked the changing point in societal and religious norms, none more so than the dissolution of the monasteries. As monasteries and monks alike adjust to the new ways of life, the monastery at Scarnsea buzzes with activity and murder. Henry VIII’s right-hand man, Thomas Cromwell, sends an unlikely man to investigate the situation; the hunchback reformer lawyer, Matthew Shardlake. This is the world that C.J. Sansom has chosen to create in the first book of his Tudor mystery series, aptly named, “Dissolution”.

I will be honest. It has been a very long time since I have read a murder mystery book. I know the general format because my mom is a huge Agatha Christie and Murder She Wrote fan, but I have never really been that interested in reading this genre myself. A lot of people have recommended that I should read the Shardlake series, but no one has spoiled the series, which I am thankful for as it made reading this book extremely enjoyable.

We are introduced to our protagonist, Matthew Shardlake, as he receives a new mission from his boss, Thomas Cromwell. The commissioner that Cromwell has sent to investigate the monastery of St. Donatus at the seaside town of Scarnsea, Robin Singleton, has been found murdered. It is up to Matthew and his assistant, Mark Poer, to find out the truth to why he was murdered and which one of the monks killed him. However, things are much darker and sinister at this monastery than Matthew could ever imagine and it will test everything he believes in.

I did not know what to expect before I started reading this book, but I am so glad I decided to read it. It is simply a masterpiece of intrigue and drama. It has been a while since I have been blown away by such a vivid and dark portrayal of the Tudor world that is away from the glamorous and glittering court life that we all expect from Tudor novels. The characters are raw and real; they are not cookie-cutter characters. They show that the struggle between reform and sticking with the Catholic Church was never straight forward. The details in this book are exquisite as they are compelling. Just when you think you know who did it, Sansom throws another twist that will leave you guessing until the bitter end.

I did not want this book to end because I became so attached to the characters, which is largely due to the way Sansom wrote this first novel of the Shardlake series. It’s different from any other Tudor novel that I have ever read and I want to read the rest of the series now. I understand why people wanted me to read this book and this series. I loved reading this book. If you want a thrilling Tudor mystery to read, I highly recommend you read, “Dissolution” by C.J. Sansom.

Book Review: “Thomas Cromwell: A Revolutionary Life” by Diarmaid MacCulloch

38390462The stories of King Henry VIII and the men around him have fascinated generations of historians, but there was one man who has received a negative reputation for his actions. He was the supposed son of a butcher who rose to be Henry VIII’s right-hand man, until his dramatic fall in July 1540. Thomas Cromwell was credited for helping Henry with his Great Matter, the fall of Anne Boleyn, the establishment of the Church of England, and the disastrous marriage between Henry and Anna of Cleves. Diarmaid MacCulloch has taken on the challenge to figure out who Thomas Cromwell really was by sifting through all remaining archival records that we have from this extraordinary man. It is in this book, “Thomas Cromwell: A Revolutionary Life” that MacCulloch masterfully explores the story of this man who changed English and European history forever.

Personally, I have never read a book about Thomas Cromwell, but I did want to learn more about his role in Henry VIII’s government. I had heard great things about this particular book and I wanted to read a definitive biography about Cromwell. Although at first, I was a bit intimidated reading something so academically written, I am really glad that I embarked on this journey to discover the truth of this much-maligned historical figure.

MacCulloch dives into the life of Cromwell by trying to piece together his early years and his Italian connections in the clothing trade. Cromwell did not receive a normal education of the day as he almost taught himself, which made him appreciate books and literature even more. It was these connections and his hard work which allowed Cromwell to rise to a position where he was working under Thomas Wosley. The lessons that Cromwell learned from Wosley would be beneficial as he took over as the King’s right- hand man after Wolsey’s fall from grace.

It is the decade that Cromwell served as Henry’s administrative polymath that is MacCulloch’s main focus. This part might trip up casual history students as it is very academic. My suggestion, if you are a casual history student, is to take your time to fully understand the steps that Cromwell took to change the political and religious landscape of England to make sure Henry was happy. It was not always an easy task, but with great risks came great rewards, such as the title of Vice-Gerent in Spirituals. Cromwell’s fingerprints could be seen all over the establishment of the Church of England, the dissolution of the monasteries, and the expanding powers of Parliament. There were those who were not exactly thrilled with all of these changes, however, the only opinion that truly mattered was the one that belonged to Henry VIII, and he was happy with Cromwell’s work.

Cromwell was not just a politician, he was a father to a son named Gregory Cromwell. It was interesting to learn that even after his wife died, Thomas Cromwell never remarried and raised Gregory as a single father. It was when Cromwell got involved in Henry’s personal life that matters got tricky for Cromwell. Obviously, many people are familiar with Cromwell’s role with Anne Boleyn’s fall from grace. However, it was the marriage between Henry and Anna of Cleves that would be the incident that brought Cromwell from the pinnacle of power to death’s door.

MacCulloch’s biography is truly a triumph. It is academic, both in its meticulously researched contents and its writing style, yet it remains engaging and thought-provoking. Although at times, this book was challenging, it was one of those books that you feel proud to read. If you want a fabulous book about the life of Thomas Cromwell as well as the changes that he helped create in the Tudor government and the establishment of the Church of England, “Thomas Cromwell: A Revolutionary Life” by Diarmaid MacCulloch should be included in your collection.

Book Review: “Henry VIII and the Men Who Made Him” by Tracy Borman

40642324The story of the reign of King Henry VIII has been told mainly through his numerous marriages and through the lives of his children. Although his immediate family was a big part of his legacy, there is much more to his story than his tempestuous relationships. There were also his legal, religious, and military exploits. The ones who were with Henry when he made these decisions were the men who were loyal to him, his counselors and companions. Their tales are often told separately, until now. Tracy Borman has decided to masterfully combine their tales to explore the life of their infamous king in her latest biography, “Henry VIII and the Men Who Made Him”. 

I have read plenty of books about Henry VIII’s wives and his children, but I haven’t read many books about the legendary man himself. I wanted a biography that explored the decisions he made in his life and the men who helped him along the way. That is exactly what Borman delivered in this biography that is bountiful with the information that it provides. 

Like any good biography, Borman begins by exploring Henry VIII’s birth and childhood. This is actually a significant time in his life and in the development of the future king of England. Growing up as the second son, Henry VIII was not destined to be king, but when his older brother Arthur tragically passed away, everything changed and Henry was thrust into a life of training to become king. He was constantly living in the shadow of his father and once he became king, he tried to outshine Henry VII.

Once he became king, Henry surrounded himself with men, both of royal birth and humble origins, to help run England. Some of the men that Borman included are Charles Brandon, Cardinal Wolsey, Sir Francis Bryan, Thomas More, Thomas Cromwell, Thomas Cranmer, Thomas Wroithesley, and Thomas Howard. Relatively familiar names for those who have studied the Tudors before and understand the significance of their roles in the Tudor court. However, Borman also includes the stories of men who did their best work on the sidelines, like the painters, diplomats, members of his inner circle, and doctors who saw all of Henry’s triumphs and failures. 

By highlighting the men that Borman did, she gives her audience a fresh perspective on such an infamous figure in history. He was a complex figure who could change his mind at a drop of the hat. These men knew how to navigate the dangerous situations that they were thrust into in order to make sure that their master’s orders were carried out. Of course, some went above the call of duty and others lost their lives to achieve their goals. 

This was the first book that I have read by Tracy Borman and I thoroughly enjoyed it. Her writing style was so engaging that I did not want this book to end. I thought I knew a lot about Henry VIII and his men, but “Henry VIII and the Men who Made Him” still provided new facts that surprised me. If you want to read a biography about Henry VIII that gives a fresh and innovative look into his life, I highly recommend you read this book. 

Book Review: “Jane the Quene” by Janet Wertman

513yHRNsuFLHenry VIII may have had six wives, but only one could give him the desired son that he wanted. She was kind, demure and everything that Henry VIII’s second wife Anne Boleyn was not. Her name was Jane Seymour, Henry’s third wife. Sadly, she is often remembered for the birth of her son and her death. However, there was a lot more to Jane’s story than the ending. What was her relationship with her family like? How did she fall in love with the King? And how was her relationship with her romantic rival, Anne Boleyn? These are just some of the questions that Janet Wertman strives to answer in her first novel of her new Seymour Saga called, “Jane the Quene”.

I would like to thank Janet Wertman for sending me a copy of “Jane the Quene”. This was a delightful read and a fantastic start to the Seymour Saga.

Wertman begins her book with a prologue of Jane Seymour entering the services of Henry’s first wife Catherine of Aragon. In this opening scene, we begin to see a rivalry bloom between Jane and her cousins Anne and Mary Boleyn. After Catherine and Henry divorce, Anne Boleyn becomes Queen and Jane Seymour is in the services of the new queen, hoping to help and serve while looking for a husband. Her brother Edward does not think that having Jane in court is really working to help her find a husband. He wants to send her home so that her younger sister can possibly find a husband, but things change when King Henry VIII and Anne Boleyn visit Wolf Hall. Wertman description of how the king and Jane become friends during this visit is rather charming and very natural. Jane tries to ignore the king’s interest in her, but Henry can’t forget the kind and demure nature of Jane and eventually, the two fall in love, even though Henry is still married to Anne.

In the middle of this tangled love mess is Thomas Cromwell, a clerk who wants to please his king in order to make his own career grow. Henry is not happy with his marriage to Anne Boleyn since she has not been able to give him  a son, so he gives Cromwell the task of “getting rid of her”. However, Cromwell needs to find another wife who would be the opposite of Anne Boleyn. That is when he comes up with a plan to make Jane Seymour Henry’s next wife and queen, which does succeed.  

Wertman’s Jane Seymour is a complex character who cares about her family and her husband. She is not just some plain wallflower who merely followed Anne Boleyn as Henry’s wife for a short time. With strong allies, like Cromwell and her brothers Edward and Thomas, Jane rises like a phoenix and survives all of the hate from Anne to become Henry’s beloved wife and queen. Wertman portrays Henry VIII as a man who is intelligent, caring and who struggles with how to reform the church.

Wertman breathes new life into the story of Jane Seymour. I thoroughly enjoyed reading this novel, which is the first book in her Seymour Saga, as it balances the political intrigue of the Tudor court with the romance between Henry and Jane. Their love story is one that is often forgotten in the chaos of Henry’s marriage track record, but one that needs to be told. Jane will not be just the “third wife” or “the mother of Edward VI” after this book. She was a strong woman who truly loved Henry VIII.  If you really want to read a novel about Jane Seymour, I highly recommend you read “Jane the Quene” by Janet Wertman.